Monday, May 21, 2007

Line too long, just crack open a beer--a trip to the Kyrgyz Embassy

Well it's been a busy week. Our HHE or Household Effects arrived and we've been swimming in boxes. Secretary Rice was here (more details and pictures later) with the message that we're not in a new cold war with Russia. And, Tristan and I had a little adventure to the Kyrgyz Embassy.

Tristan had an Admin Day to unpack our stuff (which takes forever!). We worked all weekend so we could try to accomplish two things today: find a vacuum belt for our Hoover which broke en route (no luck!) and find out about the possibility of visas for Kyrgyzstan to visit our friend and former FIUTS Friendship Connection, Timur, who was a Humphrey Fellow at the University of Washington last year.

After much searching on the internet and in the English version of the Russian Yellow pages, we found the address for the embassy and downloaded forms from the DC Embassy's site. We arrived to the Embassy just before noon and wandered around until we found the side of the building with the consulate after asking the Militsia (police) outside. We wandered into this courtyard area with absolutely no security which seemed incredibly strange to me who has to pass through several guard stations just walking within the US Embassy compound, but I suppose the Kyrgyz have yet to have their embassy actually shot at.

We got in line at the visa window and luckily there was a young woman standing there who spoke Russian, some English, and Kyrgyz. When I say a line, I really don't mean a line--it's more like a mass of people gathering in a tight group around the consular services window. Even if it's your "turn" others will interrupt with their questions and listen in on your business. Those of you who know anything about visa lines and border crossings, will know that the US in particular is a big fan of the "yellow line". "Don't cross the yellow line"--"Stay behind the Yellow Line!" My former students even did a whole skit about this. We like order in the US--straight, neat lines where everyone knows who is next. Forget that!

Tristan went to the window and asked about getting a visa. The guy at the window flipped through our passports trying to find previous visas and, I figured, our Russian visas which were stamped in our other passports. Being the American novelty they quickly ushered us to the back. No metal detector, no search of my bag, not even a guard. The door we went through latched, most of the time. We sat down in this lady's office and she gave us a new form to complete, told us to go down the hall to get a copy of our passports, and then take the paper she gave us to the bank down the street to pay for the visas and come back. All this only took about 15 minutes.

We wandered back out, made copies, and completed the form. We luckily bumped into the woman who spoke three languages from earlier and she told us where the bank was. So you understand the craziness of today, it was 86 degrees F in Moscow! HOT! Down the street we wandered through the schlapbom (guard gate), through a parking lot, around a couple buildings and finally found the SberBank. We got in another "line" and there we stood for the next TWO HOURS!!!

There were about 8 of us in this line and you would think this wouldn't take too long. By now it's about 12:15, enough time we thought to pay and get back to the Embassy before 1PM when the consulate closed. HA! The guy at the front of the line was there for at least 35 minutes. Again, this is not a straight, neat little American line. This is a mass of people all trying to figure out what's going on pressed up against the window. The surprising thing was that everyone knew where they were in this "line." Folks would go sit down, read a book, get up, push in front, ask a question, go back, sit down. Still "order" was kept. A Russian looking guy in front of us got so tired of the line, he left and went and bought a beer around the corner, came back and proceeded to sit down and start drinking it. When we started laughing (more out of commiseration), he slipped it under the desk, smiled, and asked us to keep it down. Another lady in line got out to go breast feed her kid twice. After another hour, the first guy popped open another beer. Luckily, he was on #2 by the time his turn came up and the bank guy said he couldn't process his payment because he didn't have his passport.

A word about "passports." Russians have two types of passports--domestic, which is your key to everything; and your actual passport which you use to leave the country. You can't sneeze without your domestic passport. We went to buy a cell phone and it was a big fuss because we didn't have a Russian passport. The funniest exchange was the guy trying to pay the passport fee because he lost his passport and the bank guy fussing at him because he couldn't process his payment without his passport! HUH?

Finally at 2PM, the bank guy said he was going to lunch. Ahhh, we'd been there two hours!!!! Tristan got pushy and pulled the, "I'm an American diplomat and I need to get this done now." We felt a bit guilty for using the privilege, but we'd paid our dues after two hours!! The bank guy processed the last four of us together and sent us to another window to pay, then we pooled our money, paid, and went back to the first window. Then there was the back and forth six times with the papers. Neither of us knew what the hell the little paper dance was all about. Bank guy would print something on the receipt, then an initial, more printing, initials and so on. Finally, a receipt with the correct stamp, I hope.

Tired and hungry, we decided to wander down the street for some lunch. We saw the Kyrgyz Cultural Center Cafe around the corner and thought it might be fun to eat there. We wandered in and the lady from the embassy who gave us our forms was there and told us to come in. She ushered us to the hostess and told her we were Americans and should be seated. I looked around the cafe and said, "I think the whole embassy staff is here." Later we figured out that the cafe closes 1-2:15 to feed the Kyrgyz Embassy staff. We had been cordially invited in by the consular officer. I nudged Tristan to go ask her if we could still get our visas this afternoon, and she said yes, give me your forms. So there in the Stolabaya (cafeteria), we handed the consular officer all our visa forms. Tristan was about to give her our passports when she told us to come back tomorrow at 10AM and she would stamp the passports. Stunned at receiving such gracious back-door hospitality, Tristan thanked her and sat down. Then, I realized, I would have to return in the morning without Tristan to get our visas. I nudged Tristan again to get her business card, tell her he was working, and that I didn't speak very good Russian. She said not to worry, that everyone knew her and not to worry about my language.

Maybe it was being the novel Americans, but I believe Kyrgyz hospitality redeemed what was otherwise a completely aggravating experience. Hopefully tomorrow will be equally as redeeming!


Unknown said...

It sounds like the Russians learned their customer service the same place the Ukrainians did...probably from Stalin.

Carolyn and Tristan said...

Ya Sglasna!